Monday, December 31, 2007

Imprecise benevolence

I'm just going to quote this without comment. It is an excellent commentary on, among other things, the speech codes and worse in American universities. It's Roger Kimball at PJM.

Political correctness tends to breed the sort of unaccountability that Stephen warns against. At its center is a union of abstract benevolence, which takes mankind as a whole for its object, with rigid moralism. It is a toxic, misery-producing brew.

The Australian philosopher David Stove got to the heart of the problem when he pointed out that it is precisely this combination of universal benevolence fired by uncompromising moralism that underwrites the cult of political correctness. “Either element on its own,” Stove observed,
is almost always comparatively harmless. A person who is convinced that he has a moral obligation to be benevolent, but who in fact ranks morality below fame (say), or ease; or again, a person who puts morality first, but is also convinced that the supreme moral obligation is, not to be benevolent, but to be holy (say), or wise, or creative: either of these people might turn out to be a scourge of his fellow humans, though in most cases he will not. But even at the worst, the misery which such a person causes will fall incomparably short of the misery caused by Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao, or Ho-Chi-Minh, or Kim-Il-Sung, or Pol Pot, or Castro: persons convinced both of the supremacy of benevolence among moral obligations, and of the supremacy of morality among all things. It is this combination which is infallibly and enormously destructive of human happiness.
...the result is not paradise but a campaign to legislate virtue, to curtail eccentricity, to smother individuality, to barter truth for the current moral or political enthusiasm. For centuries, political philosophers have understood that the lust for equality is the enemy of freedom. That species of benevolence underwrote the tragedy of Communist tyranny. The rise of political correctness has redistributed that lust over a new roster of issues: not the proletariat, but the environment, not the struggling masses, but “reproductive freedom,” gay rights, the welfare state, the Third World, diversity training, and an end to racism and xenophobia.


Riri said...

Oh I don't know what's right from wrong anymore. I think it is all the same, just different words. It will always be the same, the only thing that is changing is the lingo.

NoolaBeulah said...

I think the source of confusion is our expectation that what works between you and I, or among the family or friends, will necessarily work between a government and its people. That what works on the small scale will work on the large.

Another expectation is that the intention to do good will lead to ... good.

Yet our vision of what is best for other people is shaky even with those we know and love, and should always be applied with caution and hesitancy. When that vision (how to make people better) is applied to a mass of people we don't know, well, then you've got problems. (Nonetheless, I think you can go ahead with the anti-woollen hat legislation. There can be no shadow of a doubt there.)

Riri said...

Are you saying that leaders are not inherently evil but a lot of them start off with the will to do good then invariably end up doing evil? How come they never say sorry then? Is it because love is "never having to say am sorry"?

The thing is, only a very motivated and determined person will survive the intense competition for power. This profile will necessarily require somebody who are clear about their vision, goals and how to achieve them. They need to be ruthless. Other people who just want to do good and want the world to be a nice place to live in, will never have enough conviction to make it to power. My point is, in order to be a leader you need to be sure or seem to be sure and then persuade others that you are right. Otherwise, you will just not catch on.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Riri - right. In order to have power you have to be ruthless and amoral - because you need to be adepth at playing up people against each other and such like -but at the same time convinced of some cause and strongly so. You have to make yourself believe - not just be hypocritical. It is rather like method acting. Tony Blair is a good example - he lies, but he lied passinately with believe, taking people with him.

NoolaBeulah said...

I'm going to sound hopelessly naive, but I don't find politicians ruthless, evil and amoral. I've only had limited contact with them, but I'd say quite the contrary. Some are idealistic, most want to do something useful and to feel that they have contributed. From what I know, they work extremely hard and most of the stuff they deal with is quite small-scale and/or extremely tedious. The money they make is nothing compared with what some of them, at least, could make in the private sector.

In addition, I would also say that they rarely lie, in the sense of saying something directly contrary to the truth as they know it. They just can't afford to. This is not to say that they tell the truth. For whatever reason, be it personal, political or a question of what is socially acceptable, here too, they often just can't afford to. Mostly, they exist between the truth and the lie, but in the positions they hold, often it is the most responsible thing to do.

I really think it depends more on the system than on the individuals. If there is any accountability in the system, lies will eventually bring you down. The more people 'involved' in the system and the more competition there is in it, the better will be the behaviour of the politicians. Up to a certain point.

They are not saints; they are not role-models (for the most part); they will not normally be heroes. But I think mostly they do their jobs as well as you and I do ours - it's just that there are a lot more people watching them and after their titles.

Riri said...

Am sure there is a lot of truth in what you say NoolaBeulah, but I think this is at most the initial intention of politicians. I very much believe power/fame/money corrupts people and I also believe that the politicians we see are only marionettes (puppets) in the hands of the (hidden) rich and powerful. The point is, they get trapped maybe, but am sure there are some who get in only to satisfy their need for recognition and make it to history books no matter what, they are the ones who will last in a world where people are bought and sold like cattle. Others who insist on having different views to the rich and powerful will simply disappear. This is the way the world has behaved since the beginning of time. That is what I was trying to say when I said only a specific type of profile will make it to power and last as a leader: you simply cannot last in power if you do not value it more than anything and anyone.

NoolaBeulah said...

When John Major lost the election in 1997, he acknowledged his defeat in the morning, and went to watch the cricket at Lords in the afternoon. Tony Blair walked away without suffering defeat basically because he had said he would.

Of course, you're right that to be a leader, you need to be determined and ruthless. But that's not enough: you also have to perform. Enough people have to benefit from your leadership to make it worthwhile keeping you on. The trick is to make that group of people large enough to call the benefit 'social' rather than just a small group of cronies. And that they have the power to get rid of you without having to kill you and others to do it.

It's the system, not the person.